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Paul Greenberg / February 27, 2009

And Then Something Happened … Notes on the State of the Union

It was in his State of the Union address, delivered in the gravest crisis the American union had faced since its inception, its dismembered pieces scattered before him, that a still new American president said it:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. –Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862.

And saved it was, at a cost so terrible surely no one, not even that president and commander-in-chief, could have foreseen it. Any more than he had foreseen the timing and extent of the new birth of freedom he would preside over and America would live to glory in.

So that one day, specifically February 24, 2009, when the sergeant-at-arms of the House announced the President of the United States, a striking, bronze-skinned man could step forward. And no one would think the sight in any way remarkable. Not in America.

X X X

In another moment of history, though with some of today’s overtones, another president of the United States would rise to the occasion. On his cloudy inauguration day, he would stand upright, like the beleaguered country itself, on paralyzed legs. All was obscured when he arrived at the Capitol, the doubts as heavy as the atmosphere. But before he was done, his words would have lifted up millions of Americans glued to their radios across a nation adrift and afraid, caught in a world they had never made. For this is what he said:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. –Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933.

The new president had identified the enemy, and it was not some inexorable force beyond our control, but deep within ourselves. And by naming it, he had begun to disarm it, and the nation would begin to conquer it. The sun had come out.

No wonder the anticipation was thick, almost tangible, Tuesday night as the 44th president of the United States made his way to the center of fickle history, acknowledged the applause, and began.

X X X

It was a great beginning, as if this still young and sorely tested president had not only read FDR, but studied him, taken his compass from him. For this is what he said at the very outset, speaking not to some vast, indistinguishable audience out there, to the Masses, for there is no such thing in America but only We the People. And he was speaking to each one of us:

You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It’s the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It’s the job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere. –Barack Obama, February 24, 2009.

This was kitchen-table talk, what Franklin Roosevelt called a Fireside Chat. This new president had got our attention, and surely the nation’s. He had connected. He had located us in our time and his. And in his next words he would see beyond it:

But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

Here was FDR’s invincible optimism. America still lived.

X X X

And then something happened. And kept happening. For the next hour.

Having mounted his charger, our knight proceeded to ride off in all directions:

He blamed his predecessor for the vast deficit he had inherited – just after pushing a three-quarter-of-a-trillion spending package through Congress that will make it vaster.

Promising economies to balance the budget, in the next breath he was handing out goodies all around – to the deserving, undeserving, in-between, it scarcely mattered.

He was going to encourage private capital to invest – by raising taxes on it.

He would restore our sense of personal responsibility by blaming others.

Our brave new president was going to help the country’s banks without helping them. (“That’s what this is about. It’s not about helping banks – it’s about helping people.”) He was going to offer a comprehensive program of reform without its being comprehensive. (“My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue.” He could have fooled me, for he talked about everything from reforming health care to keeping cops on the best in Minneapolis.)

But this president can see right through those high-powered execs out of Detroit in their private jets: “As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices.” But he wasn’t about to let them face the consequences, either: “…we are committed to the goal of a retooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it.” And on his administration’s subsidies.

The ironies kept coming. This president was going to balance the budget – just as soon as he spent more. Like the fellow who’s going to sober up right after this binge. He was going to be frugal as soon as he stopped handing out the pork. (“That is why I have asked Vice President Biden to lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort – because nobody messes with Joe!”)

It wasn’t just the words that didn’t fit together, it was the sights and sounds, the tone of the thing. What he said no longer cohered. He had lost the thread, and with it decorum. He had started speaking softly to each of us. Soon he was delivering a humdinger of a speech at party headquarters on the South Side. Nobody messes with Joe! Laughter, applause, nudges in the side, all on cue. Above him Joe squirmed modestly while lacquered Nancy Pelosi jumped up and down like a teenybopper at every applause line. It was embarrassing.

The old game at other State of the Union speeches had come back: The majority whoops it up in the aisles at its man’s every oh-so-clever sally while the minority sits on its hands.

X X X

This still new president, very new, had slipped smoothly into campaign rhetoric, but the effect was jarring. Like the sound of gears stripping. Something had happened. Something not good. We were no longer listening as one. Maybe because this president was no longer addressing us as one.

And he had started out so well. In a better world, we could just unwind the tape, go back to the beginning, erase all the smudges, and straighten out the tangles. In that version, he would stay on the high ground. Maybe that’s what this promising young president – all too promising – needs to do.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC. 

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